Friday, September 16, 2011
Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous — The Rocket Interview
Honoring the anniversary of the release of Almost Famous this week, I've transcribed my 2000 interview with filmmaker Cameron Crowe for the highly influential, now-defunct Seattle music and arts magazine, The Rocket.
Inexplicably, the studio really hadn't reached out to the magazine for coverage of Almost Famous; I think a movie review is all we would have done. I asked my editor about interviewing Crowe... after all, the man was enormously popular in Seattle after Say Anything, Singles... and of course, his marriage to Heart's Nancy Wilson (sadly, the couple divorced in 2010). Up until then, my newbie work for The Rocket had been mostly album and concert reviews. The assignment was given to me as a test, I felt, to see if my abilities matched my eagerness — could I track down Cameron Crowe without any help? I pulled out my Day-Timer and started working my way up the ladder of contacts.
Within 36 hours, one of my heroes since a high-school read of Fast Times At Ridgemont High in Playboy was leaving me messages on my answering machine. It turned out that Crowe was a fan of The Rocket, and had hoped someone would call him! Needless to say, the resulting, wide-ranging interview was an enormous confidence builder, and remains one of my favorites.
Our chat was originally titled "That '70s Crowe" back in Sept. 2000.
The Rocket: How much of Almost Famous really happened, and how much of it is fiction?
Cameron Crowe: All of it's true, except the reconciliation between my mother and my sister, which we're still working on. Everything else is true.... the movie is kind of a Cuisinart — put it in and hit "blend" — though a lot of it happened as it was. Over the years, someone would ask what it was like to be on the road with Led Zeppelin, and I'd say, "Pull up a chair, and I'll tell you a story." I've always been really proud of those experiences, they were things I've always wanted to get down — at least on paper. The movie is sort of like a living novel that I don't know if I was comfortable directing until now... it's a novel on film, and it all happened.
Rocket: So your mother (played by Frances McDormand in the film) really is a New Age, intellectual conservative?
Crowe: Yeah, kind of a free-thinker and a fan of knowledge — and she's got a bullshit detector like nobody else. My mom's a big rock fan now, but she's still that person, she's a college professor and everything. Basically, she thought that rock was false advertising — "Don't pretend to be grand and literate when really, you're selling sex and drugs... so let's be honest here." But, at the same time, she was bringing Dick Gregory and Cesar Chavez to the classes to speak. At the same time she was telling me, "Don't listen to rock 'n' roll," she was saying, "I want you to meet Dick Gregory, he is a secular saint." I'll never forget it — my mom introduced me to Dick Gregory.
Rocket: Did Gregory tell you any jokes?
Crowe: No! Dick Gregory said, "Let's run in the park, I'm fasting over the end of the Vietnam War." We went running with this guy in one of mom's classes, Bob Brown. We ended up at Brown's house, listening to Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." It was the coolest.
Rocket: Your films have always been noted for their soundtracks. Almost Famous seems like the collaboration that you and Nancy would've been waiting for. Is "Fever Dog" one of those by-products of the film that you didn't expect?
Crowe: We've been preparing for this for years. It used to be a different project with a different name, but always our little tribute to a very specific year in rock — 1973. We started writing these songs on our honeymoon in 1986, but we continued, out of pure fun, to work on the Stillwater (Almost Famous' fictitious band) songs after that. Nancy has given an intoxicating feel to everything I've done as a director, with the exception of Singles, which was me trying to get Paul Westerberg to be Nancy Wilson, in a way (laughs). Which he was happy to go for, because he digs Nancy. This is the movie where her stuff really shines. (With) "Fever Dog," our goal was to do something that would've sounded good between "Money" and "Aqualung" on FM radio in '73. We wanted to artfully rip off Led Zeppelin, and be real, instead of a parody.
Rocket: How important was it for you to include Led Zeppelin songs in the movie?
Crowe: Without Zeppelin, it wouldn't be real. I never knew what kind of mood they would be in. In fact, we'd heard they had loved Trainspotting, that they wished there was a movie like Trainspotting that was musical and visual to lend their songs to. We'd also heard that they didn't want to be associated with the 70s. When we flew to England to show it to them, we didn't know what sort of attitude was there waiting for us. What was waiting for us were very open minds.... I think (Page and Plant) appreciated the sincerity of the movie, and they asked for more of their music to be included — which we were only too happy to accommodate.
Rocket: Apart from the movie, how did they react to your choice of their material?
Crowe: Jimmy Page said, "That's The Way" is the one that was used best. The question became whether we could add more film to "The Rain Song." The rest of the songs you get to hear at length. "The Rain Song" was used least of all, and Plant said, "You know 'The Rain Song"' is a pretty full and textured song to be used quickly." I said, "Hey, man, I'm looking for any excuse in the world to make that scene longer." He replied, "Well, send me the tape."
Rocket: So you tried to flesh out a scene to include more of that song?
Crowe: The movie wasn't finished when we took it to them. It was almost finished... and there was a great shot of Fairuza Balk (who plays a groupie) that I always loved, which was Fairuza coming down a dark hallway into the light. The scene sort of launches the end of the movie. We had a four-hour cut of the film, and we kept cutting it down to the bone and building it back up — and that was the one thing I'd always missed. So when I was talking to Plant, that scene came to mind. Courtney Love was on the set the day we shot that scene, so I have a really good memory of that day. I thought, "This was not meant to wind up on the cutting room floor."
Rocket: The soundtrack isn't your average 70s compilation — it's a bit adventurous, with some obscure numbers. Did you choose all of them yourself?
Crowe: Yeah, all of the soundtracks have been from "road tapes." I work really closely with (music supervisor) Danny Bramson, one of my closest friends. I was dying to get "I'm Waiting For The Man" on there, because there was a semi-bootleg version available in England for a minute. There was a contract dispute with Bowie's former manager, and it was withdrawn pretty quickly. But I had it, I had this good-quality version of the Santa Monica Civic show, and I loved that song. I wrote the whole sequence of them going to Cleveland for the song... the beginning of "I'm Waiting For The Man" sounded like a bus trip.
Rocket: You've got to be a big Beach Boys fan to put "Feel Flows" into a movie.
Crowe: Yes! it's the one thing you can't get on CD — you can't get Surf's Up on CD. We had this really scratchy record... we were lucky to get the master.
Rocket: Lester Bangs is an essential figure in the film. Did a mentoring relationship develop past your initial meetings?
Crowe: It actually did develop; he was a very honest critic of my stuff. He'd tell me when I'd written something he'd liked, and told me when I was buying into rock-star dogma. The last conversation I had with him was a few months before he died, and we discussed the merits of Peter Frampton. I've since talked to people who said he actually appreciated Frampton as a guitarist — privately, late at night, he would confess that. He was really quite a guy.
Rocket: Was Phillip Seymour Hoffman in your mind for the role from the beginning?
Crowe: In my dreams! He is the hardest-working guy in show business today, and we weren't sure we could get him. We got him for about four days.
Rocket: Through Bangs, the film pokes fun at Ben Fong-Torres and magazine editors in general. Was Jann Wenner aware of this when he agreed to a cameo?
Crowe: He was... he'd read the script, and had a good sense of humor about it. The ironies were deep... he had a stormy relationship with Lester. Lester left Rolling Stone shortly before I met him. A lot of people don't know how close Jann has stayed with with all of his memories of the time.
Rocket: As a rock journalist, so many aspects of the movie hit home for me. How do you feel those not associated with the music industry are going to interpret the film?
Crowe: (Sighs) I don't know... I don't know if anybody will show up.
Rocket: You're not serious, your name alone will sell tickets.
Crowe: I'm completely serious. I've certainly never made a movie to be successful — well, I actually hoped The Wild Life would be successful, and I got slapped down so hard that I never cared after that. I felt, on some superstitious level, that if you worry about popularity it will never appear. All of the stuff that I've loved the most could not have been made with a desire for commercial success.
Rocket: I spotted Pete Droge's and Peter Frampton's cameos, but where was Eric Stoltz?
Crowe: Oooh, that hurts. That's a sad, sad, story, my friend. I'll tell you what happened: I tried to get him to play Bowie, because I thought it would be hilarious — people would ask, "Where's Stoltz?" And I'd say, "He plays Bowie!" (David Bowie's face does not appear in the film.)
I've been surprised that it's become sort of a game - Spotting Stoltz! I think I insulted Eric by offering him too small a part. The way I was going to tip my hat to him, and come back with a bigger part on the next film, was a shot where the band was coming into Cleveland and they see the marquee. It was a cool thing, I really loved the idea — the marquee was changing; there was a guy on a ladder in front of the Cleveland Arena changing the letters to "Stillwater — Tonight." But, on the side, it was gonna say, "Upcoming Shows — July 9 — Miles Davis, July 10 — Gram Parsons and July 12 — The Eric Stoltz Experience." That was how we were going to get Eric in... but we took too long filming the "Tiny Dancer" scene and two other scenes. Everybody said, "You can come back and shoot the marquee later," but I could never get the dough to go back and shoot it.
So, I've broken the streak, and I'm very depressed.
Rocket: Is Eric Stoltz depressed?
Crowe: I don't know, I got some e-mail from him last week that was... enigmatic. It made me even sadder. I feel like I have to do penance. Telling you this story, I can see his point of view really well. "I played a chicken for you (Say Anything); I played the lead in the worst thing you've ever written (The Wild Life) like a trooper; I played a mime (Singles), and I played the guy throwing a bachelor party for Tom Cruise (Jerry Maguire). Where's the love?"
(Laughing) There was another scene that we ran out of time to shoot: A scene where the kid walks in on Jeff Bebe (played by Jason Lee) doing cocaine. He goes into a bathroom to write down some notes, and looks up and Bebe is being given some cocaine by the leather-clad local Topeka coke guy. So the kid's busting Bebe, and Bebe's busting him for taking secret notes. This was the dialogue: The kids says, "Hey." Bebe goes, "Hi." The kid says, "Hi," and the coke guy says, "Hey." And that was the end of the scene (laughs).
I'm bummed... I could've made the coke guy Eric Stoltz and I would've solved the problem!
Rocket: Stoltz has already played a dope dealer, in Pulp Fiction.
Crowe: Yeah, once again, all thankless parts for a guy that deserves so much more.
- Steve Stav